Review of Sensing Singapore

Sensing Singapore Devadas

Devadas Krishnadas, Sensing Singapore: Reflections in a Time of Change

Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014. Pp. 251, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Greg Lopez 

Singapore: an unusual country?

Singapore is an unusual country. A post-colonial country in a relatively poor region, it is has income levels and living standards that are comparable to the most developed nations. In a region where economic growth is driven primarily by extractive and labour intensive industries: minerals, agriculture and/or manufacturing; Singapore is driven by capital and knowledge intensive industries. In a region accustomed to civil and political strife, Singaporeans experience political and social stability as a norm, rather than the exception. In a region where race, religion and feudalism dominate, Singapore is a secular republic driven by meritocracy (contrarian views notwithstanding). In a region populated by non-Chinese ethnic groups, Singapore is the only country with an overwhelmingly dominant ethnic Chinese majority. Despite all these peculiarities, Singapore has not only managed to avoid conflict with it’s less well-off and tumultuous neighbours but also in this geopolitically strategic region, has managed to navigate its way through the ‘big power competition’ without slighting any of the global and regional powers, ensuring that this ‘special red dot’ punches way above its weight securing material benefit to those residing there.[i]

These remarkable achievements should silence any critic, especially Singapore’s own citizens. But that is not the case. A significant number of Singaporeans are unhappy with their lives.[ii] For a long while, quite a number have silently voted with their feet.[iii] In recent years, many have loudly indicated through the electoral process and social media, that they are very unhappy with their government and/or its policies.[iv]

The challenge: an unusual one?

Why is a government as secure, successful and formidable as the Singaporean government – with its enviable human development outcomes, capable politicians and technocrats, and extensive financial resources – unable to meet the expectations of (many of) its citizens.

At the Malaysia and Singapore Updates (in 2012 and 2013), at the Australian National University, experts gathered identified a recurring issue that centred on the rising expectations of the citizens of these two countries of their governments. They argued that in recent times, these expectations have become more exacting and demanding; and that the governments of Malaysia and Singapore are finding it increasingly difficult to meet these exacting demands.

Is this therefore a case of a government’s failure to deliver on the legitimate expectations of its citizenry or are the demands of (some/many) Singaporeans simply too outlandish, or a mix of both perhaps? This is where ‘Sensing Singapore’ makes an important contribution. It not only provides a framework to think about these issues but also, through this framework, identify (some of) the underlying causes for these outcomes. The book also provides a range of solutions – sometimes pragmatic, other times radical – and who should be responsible for implementing those solutions, and where relevant, how it should be financed. All are done in a calm, composed and logical manner. For these reasons, the book and the author have inadvertently contributed to a more important but undervalued and underutilised dimension in policymaking – that of ‘vertical accountability.’ But before that, a quick tour of the book.

Sensing Singapore: an unusual book?

This book is unusual for several reasons. First, ‘Sensing Singapore’ is an easy book to read, but the issues addressed are weighty.

Second, most of the author’s thoughts are already in the public domain. The book is a compilation of the author’s commentaries and speeches between August 2012 and September 2013.[v] While it responded to popular issues that impacted Singapore during the said period, many were recurring issues with long term implications that Singapore/Singaporeans is/are grappling with. These issues are organised into nine thematic areas for the book. The nine thematic issues can be boiled down to the idea of Singapore’s continued viability as a nation in an increasingly uncertain external environment, and the role that the rulers and the ruled should play, in navigating these uncertainties.

In reading the first three chapters of the book (the Introduction section), one gets a quick overview of the book, understands the author’s motivation to produce this book, identifies the objectives of the book and the issues addressed, the framework of analysis and the principles that underpin the framework, and the overall organisation of the book. After reading the Introduction section, readers can choose to read any chapter of the book as each chapter addresses a particular topic that has impacted Singapore. Through this book, the author takes on issues ranging from policy issues, both domestic (state-society relations, social cleavages including hot-button issues such as immigration, population growth, cost-of-living, and inequality) and external (Looking Outwards section) but also conceptual issues (e.g. ‘Surviving Change’, ‘A Future of Our Own Making’, ‘Divergence’, ‘One Society, Two Questions’ and ‘New Beginnings’).

The book is also unusual because it includes not only facts and analysis that are not entirely edifying of the incumbent government, but also of other important stakeholders such as Singapore’s much vaunted public sector and Singaporeans in general. Yet is has a forward from K. Shanmugam, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs and also for Law. The Minister noted in his forward that, “…He is one of the rare few who tell it like it is…”

And the author does tell it like it is. Consider the following vignettes:

“…When we see the world through theory – in the case of the MOF [Ministry of Finance], this meant economic theory – we impute meaning and value judgements into all evidence. When this happens, we have a tendency to fit facts to theory rather than theory to facts. This revealed the human tendency, especially amongst the highly intelligent, to assume that their world view was a given and hence, incontestable by alternatives…” p. 22

“…Over the past decade, there has been an erosion of public confidence in the incumbent government…” p. 24

“…Singapore was fortunate to have Gramscian public intellectuals at the onset of our founding – men such as the late S. Rajaratnam and Dr Goh Keng Swee….Since their day, Singapore has not had the benefit of public intellectualism matching their stature and influence…” p. 29

“…I had found unnerving the wild emotionalism that typically featured in opposition rallies during the general and by-elections…” p. 33

“…The problem is the propensity of domestic American politics to require a sufficiently scaled and alien “Other” to be the bogeyman…Significant strategic Asian allies of the US risk becoming political footballs kicked about in the drama of future congressional and presidential politics…” p. 73

“…Inequality is the vector that is most obviously hyperactive in recent years. Singapore has one of the world’s highest levels of inequality. This has created social angst…” p. 117

“…There is an intellectual flaw in the (Population) White Paper…It would be welcome if the debate in the House moved on to establishing why productivity is so low even as we become an advanced economy, why our fertility rate is relentlessly declining even as our standards of living rise and why we have lagging wages for many even as we have a rising net worth for a few…” p. 143

“…The Prism Survey by the Institute of Policy Studies…clearly shows that Singaporeans want economic growth to have social meaning. Hence it is not enough for the PAP to make a case for one without presenting a compelling case for the other…The study also showed that Singaporeans – and this may be due to the historical PAP style of governance – has a proclivity to expect the Government to find an answer to every question and to meet every need…” p. 156

“…Until recently, the Government has seen social policies, other than education, as a cost and not an investment…” p. 186

“…Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] is deserving of both praise and criticism and not one at the expense of the other…” p. 207

Notwithstanding those critical views above, the author recognises the contributions of hard working Singaporeans,  migrants, and individuals from both sides of the political divide. At the same time, the author does not hide his utmost admiration for the current prime minister and his father. The focus is always on the issue, not the individual; the policy, not the person.

It is also important to point out that two of the author’s six principles (convictions) in his framework of thinking may not entirely gel with liberal views on citizenry. The author notes that, “…the responsibility of the government to the care and security of its citizens is greater than the converse but the responsibility of the citizens to the nation is supreme…” and “…it is our duty as citizens to put these convictions into thought and action for the betterment of our country and fellow citizens…” [vi]

The phrases underlined are disconcerting. Citizens should not be compelled into altruistic behaviour either to neighbour or nation as a duty or responsibility. It should (and will) come naturally. Altruistic behaviour is often a product of an individual’s sense-of-belonging and self-worth. Notwithstanding these points, the author’s policy analysis and recommendations do not demonstrate any authoritarian or self-righteous tendencies, but are in fact humane with an emphasis on social justice. Several examples come to mind. The author argues against motherhood statements such as ‘nation before self’ if self’ refers only to people. Instead it should be read as both government and people; reminding readers that the government is not the nation. On policy matters such as fertility, the author recommends progressive (or holistic) approach to raise fertility instead of the current price focused mechanisms. Where price mechanism is used, the author suggests more equitable use of it in the areas of wage, vehicle and property ownership, etc by linking it to greater societal good such as the environment.

Nicole Seah in her note for the book states that, “…As the power of the masses has proven, the ability to influence and shape public opinion on a broadbased scale online has coaxed the government away from its top-down approach. With that the policy decisions that have been rolled out in recent times signal a more consensus-based direction, or as some might say bordering on the inevitable rise of populism…”

This is another challenge that the book addresses. The book does not provide populist policy solutions, but many of the policy prescriptions would appear popular, especially among disgruntled Singaporeans. Yet, at the same time, the author is hard nosed about fiscal responsibility. The author also takes Singaporeans (especially the disgruntled ones) to task for not investing sufficiently in the political process, or when doing so, do it in an emotive manner and often blaming the ‘Other’ (e.g. the government, the foreigner, the migrant worker, etc.) for all of their woes. But I wonder, in which country is this different? More importantly, has the government provided sufficient avenues for Singaporeans, let alone disgruntled ones, to participate in the political process in a respectful, consistent and sustained way?

Devadas Krishnadas: An unusual Singaporean?

Devadas Krishnadas is an unusual Singaporean. He began his working life as a police officer in the Singapore Police Force (SPF). He then ‘leaps’ from policing work into the futures and strategic planning domain with the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports before ending with the prestigious Ministry of Finance. He gave up a career in the public service to go into business. He now juggles between being a public intellectual and running a business, while living in Singapore.

Several important questions need to be asked to further understand the book and its author. What type of Singaporean starts his/her career as a police officer in the SPF? What type of Singaporean civil servant moves across several ministries? What type of Singaporean gives up the security of the civil service (especially in the Ministry of Finance) for the risks of entrepreneurship? What type of Singaporean attempts to be both a public intellectual and an entrepreneur in Singapore?

The answers to the above, I suspect, would not only give a glimpse of the author and the book, but increasingly of Singaporean society – one that is confident and capable, and therefore are willing to take calculated risks. And when capable and confident members of society take calculated risks for ‘the greater good’, the outcomes at the societal level are often good. Therein lies the importance and value of this book – in providing greater vertical accountability in Singapore.

The amorphous concept of ‘accountability’ ensures actions and decisions taken by public officials (elected and appointed) are subject to oversight so as to guarantee that government initiatives meet their stated objectives. Accountability is also important in ensuring that government decisions respond to the needs of the community (and not select groups). Accountability exists when there is a relationship between the rulers and the ruled, between those who govern and the governed. While horizontal accountability is the capacity of state institutions to check abuses by other public agencies and branches of government – the interpretation gained in reading this book is that in the policy making arena, they have been marginal. Vertical accountability in contrast is the means through which citizens, mass media and civil society seek to enforce standards of good performance on officials. A reading of this book suggests that this has been more potent in ensuring better policy making. That this book has seen the light of day suggests that the government agrees with this hypothesis.

Devadas understands the reality of Singaporeans who live and work in Singapore, as he too is grounded in this everyday reality – living and working in Singapore, traversing the public and private sector and maintaining close links to academia. Within these parameters, he has managed to provide his expert and authentic opinion without being hypocritical, ideological or populist. Definitely a book to be read and a public intellectual to be followed for those with an interest in Singapore’s future.


[i] “…Mr Lee said: “We are a little red dot but we are a special red dot…” : http://sgforums.com/forums/10/topics/386366

[ii] “…ranked the most emotionless country in the world, Singapore now has another unwanted title to its name – the least positive country…”; “…residents of Singapore are the least likely to feel positive alongside war torn countries such as Iraq and Armenia…” https://sg.news.yahoo.com/singapore-%E2%80%98least-positive%E2%80%99-country-in-the-world–survey-072026104.html

[iii] “…With an average of about 1,200 highly educated Singaporeans (including 300 naturalised citizens) giving up their citizenship each year in favour of others…”; “…In fact, it was reported in 2010 that about 1,000 Singaporeans a month were applying for a “Certificate of No Criminal Conviction” – a prerequisite to getting permanent  residence overseas”: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/rapid-growth-singapores-immigrant-population-brings-policy-challenges

[iv] “…To the apparent disbelief of party leaders, many Singaporeans actually seem unhappy with government policy…” http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21571159-despite-national-conversation-many-singaporeans-feel-government-does-not-listen-limits

[v] Devadas Krishnadas contributes to Today Online among several media outlets.  http://www.todayonline.com/authors/devadas-krishnadas

[vi] The first: nation and political party are not synonymous, second: responsibility of care by the government and citizenry, three: economic imperative is a means not an end to national survival, fourth: enlightened governance is premised on an enlightened and engaged citizenry, fifth: future is malleable; and sixth: duty of citizens to help one another.